Three new films by three essential auteurs at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival.
Christian Petzold’s marvellous Phoenix captures a Germany in flux following the end of World War II. Although the liberation of the concentration camps had forced Germans to acknowledge what had occurred, the film doesn’t turn the re-appearance of the dead into a straight morality tale. Petzold references classic films to particularly gruelling psychological effect: The Third Man, Vertigo, Dark Passage, and Les Yeux Sans Visage. And instead of the twists and turns being expressed through narrative, it’s told almost entirely through the eyes of Petzold’s muse, the remarkable Nina Hoss.
Phoenix’s narrative has been criticised by some as requiring a suspension of disbelief, but given the purgatory of the post-war era, it doesn’t feel unrealistic. Jewish Nelly Lenz (Hoss) is disfigured following the fall of Auschwitz. She returns to Berlin to receive urgent medical treatment, but her surgeon only succeeds in giving her a brand new face. He tells a perturbed Nelly, “a new face is an advantage.” It’s hard to tell whether he’s comforting her by giving her a new future, or explaining away his past prejudices.
Nelly’s friend Lene (and earlier saviour) is trying to organise passage for the both of them to Palestine. Nelly however is trying to track down her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who is working in a nightclub called Phoenix. Johnny, it turns out, may or may not have given Nelly up to the Nazis—but for now he doesn’t recognise her. Nelly’s game on the other hand is an inversion of Vertigo. It is from Nelly’s point of view that the film is structured, but is she trying to recapture the past, or is her quest something more sinister?
The film is mostly shot in interiors, with a stunning use of chiaroscuro lighting. For all of the narrative’s focus on Nelly’s face, it’s mostly in shadow. The rubble of night-time Berlin is the chief ‘exterior’ setting. It ordinarily wouldn’t leave much room for Hoss and Zehrfeld to create nuance, but their performance and Petzold’s subtle approach create an impressive ambiguity. It builds up with such tension, that the stunning final scene gives you both a feeling of release and of being winded.
And Johnny isn’t simply oblivious to proceedings. In many respects he represents a society unable to acknowledge what it has done. He prefers to deal with horror by pretending it never happened, or at best, captures a limited part of the past for the purposes of greed. (If this sounds like an allegorical demolition of post-war West German morality, it probably is—nor would it surprise fans of the late Harun Farocki that he co-wrote this film.) Nelly on the other hand is trying to reposition herself within a society that had demonstrated such cruelty towards her. She seems to believe in a better past, despite the unprecedented brutality of that past. In earlier films Petzold has treated his characters like ‘ghosts’ (he even made a film called Ghosts), in which deep-seated trauma or anomie has left them listless. Arguably one of the more hopeful aspects of Phoenix is the development of more and more life in Nelly’s eyes. For all of the horror, she’s a person who uses her new casing to create an alternate future.
With Hill of Freedom, Hong Sang-soo has made another superb film about social dislocation. It’s almost as if there’s little point reviewing it. And yet despite the apparent similarity in his approach—clueless men, passive-aggressiveness turned straight-out aggressiveness whenever alcohol is involved (though this time around the drink of choice is more red wine than soju), the impossibility of true human connection—there are new pleasures each and every time he makes a film.
The characters are even more stilted than usual. Japanese Mori (Ryo Kase) has come to Seoul in search of a past love Kwon (Seo Young-hwa). He can’t find her, and falls into a relationship of sorts with Young-sun (Moon So-ri). Everything is conducted in English, with certain repetitions occurring (particular phrases) because the characters don’t know what else to say. This necessity to communicate in a foreign language makes everything even more uncomfortable. And unlike Hong’s many previous relationship portrayals in which characters speak past each other, in this, the misunderstanding is inevitable, as the characters don’t pretend to understand.
Kwon receives letters from Mori that recount his time in Seoul. At the start of the film, however, she drops them, and the film becomes a piecing together of the various memories. A number of critics have compared it to Alain Resnais, and there’s certainly a mysterious, jagged quality to the way memory operates in this film.
But Hong’s not all that interested in creating an ethereal piece of time travel, nor is his depiction of memory a mere philosophical exercise. Time and location aren’t stable. Coincidences are unwanted. The characters’ natural reaction is to fall back on ritual and repetition. Hong sets out exactly why his characters end up the way they do, the reason why all of his characters (and by extension us) settle for second best, simply because any actual piecing together of unstable circumstances is too difficult. This potent film reminds us, and as Hong sadly notes, when things appear too elusive, we simply sell ourselves short searching for coherency.
Following the exceptional Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence concludes Roy Andersson’s trilogy of the absurd with a similar case in mordant miserabilism. In what is a tighter film than You, the Living, but arguably a less resonant one, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch doesn’t quite hit its targets as well as the previous films. But while the vignettes are hit and miss at times, it’s extremely watchable, with Andersson’s take on modern ennui confirming him one of contemporary cinema’s truly unique voices.
The set-up is familiar: a series of vignettes and tableaux (on a custom-made set), told with minimal editing (in this case, none within scenes), a fixed camera, and characters featuring the typical Anderssonian anaemia. Colours of washed green and tan dominate. Death is the key motif, with his characters suffering sudden heart attacks, a bravura long-take and choreographed scene recounting Charles XII of Sweden’s disastrous invasion of Russia, or by the end an unusual (though historically pointed) scene involving a large cylinder on fire.
While it is without a doubt miserable, the film is punctuated by Andersson’s particular brand of absurd humour. The protagonists (for what it’s worth) are two flailing “gag” salesmen. Their travails, arguments, and ultimate failures link the narrative—the narrative, however, shifts through space and time easily.
Despite the static set-up and the general distance of the camera from the characters, Andersson uses background and foreground to great effect. Characters from previous vignettes find resolution (or otherwise) in the background of later scenes. There’s a Tati-esque quality to the use of space, in which characters are democratically united by the flat nature of the composition. (There’s a particularly great use of an officious hostel worker who lurks in the distance.) In effect, the death that seems to stalk the characters in the film in actual fact stalks us all.